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Don Heck - A Tribute

Don Heck - A Tribute

I grew up in a small town, and while not quite as small as the fictional “Mayberry” of Andy Griffith fame… one of the main hangouts of my dad and his pals was the Barber Shop.

It was called “Harry’s”, and if not for a small wicker basket tucked into a corner, it would have been the last place in the world I’d have liked to hang out. Now don’t get me wrong, my father and his cronies did have some funny stories to tell about glory days, but you can only get a kick out of them so many times before you’re relegated to a polite smile.

Though that corner was polluted with age old hair clippings never swept up… it was my salvation. The wicker basket had all sorts of literature inside. Time, Look, Life, years old local papers, and the like. Nothing for a curious little boy until I did some digging.

At the bottom were the only two comic books in the basket. A beat up but complete copy of Avengers #6, and a coverless (but otherwise complete) copy of Avengers #15.

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These were the first two comic books I’d ever seen, and they were fantastic! These were from the prime of “The Marvel Age of Comics” and I devoured every single panel they had to offer.

Stan Lee was in his brash prime and the creativity was practically oozing from the prematurely brown and wrinkled pages. This was the early 1970’s, and the comics were only about ten years old… but they did not have the benefits their descendants would have. No poly bags, let alone hard plastic slabs. No, these comics lived hard. 

The art in both issues was amazing as well. The illustrative chores on #6 were handled by the legendary Jack “King” Kirby and his frequent collaborator Chic Stone. The dynamic pictures literally jumped out at you as if it were drawn in 3-D. This issue featured the formation of “The Masters of Evil”… and boy were they bad! The epitome of evil for a young lad such as myself.

In this issue we found out that the man responsible for Bucky’s death was still around and he was angry that his arch nemesis, Captain America, was recently discovered alive. In response to this news, he formed a powerful group of baddies to attack Captain America and his allies, The Avengers.

Everything in this issue could be described as, well… BIG. Stone’s thick line over Kirby’s pencils exaggerated even the King’s bold storytelling, while Lee’s dialogue seemed to this youngster, the most dramatic telling of events ever written!

The outcome of the battle carried a slight edge to the good guys, but it left room for the dreaded villains to return.

What happened in between issues# 6 and #15, I would not find out for at least a decade later. There were no comic shops or shows where I could dig up back issues. In fact the very cover to #15 would remain a mystery to me for years to come. But what I did know was that a rematch was happening in #15… and it would be a rematch to the death.

Again, this issue had no cover so I was greeted by a splash page featuring a decidedly more quiet design. It featured no punching, no flying, no airborne debris, in fact no action of any kind.

But boy was it dramatic! Here’s Thor acting as chairman declaring, “Now, by my hand, shall die a villain!” Stan was dealing, and though I didn’t know it at the time, the DC heroes sure didn’t talk that way. This was the Marvel way… and it was good.

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The art on this page and every other in the book was somehow more quiet than its predecessor, yet every bit as dynamic. Here the illustrations were by the team of Don Heck and Mike Esposito.

Away from DC and longtime partner Ross Andru, we find Esposito here for a cup of coffee but clearly relishing his assignment. As implied above, this was not the standard fare he was used to.

Heck on the other hand was already a Marvel super-star. As a matter of fact throughout the period, Lee himself often referred to Heck as one of his best artists. You need not look any further than books like ‘Fantasy Masterpieces’ #1, where on the cover Lee boasted of fantasy stories by “… your favorite Marvel artists…” including Kirby, Steve Ditko, Joe Sinnott, Dick Ayers, and of course, Heck. In later years, I believe it was the fine writer Tony Isabella who proclaimed, “If there was a Mount Rushmore of early Marvel, Don Heck would be on it.”

At the time of course, I knew none of this. All I knew is the magic I held in my hands. The story was incredible, it was the rarest of products in Lee’s hyped world of bombastic promotion… it was better than advertised.

There really was a showdown between the good guys and the evil doers. The biggest meanie really did perish… albeit largely and ironically by accident. The action was high flying in the air, and vibrant on the ground.

This was all spectacular, but my senses were also drawn to the types of storytelling I didn’t see in Avengers #6. These were the smaller, quieter times where we actually saw the private lives of our heroes. For me it was even more special to see what these men in tights looked like in their normal clothes.

Heck had a way with these moments that few artists could approach. He was a master of drapery. The stylish clothing carried over from the 1950’s was elegantly worn by the champions on their off hours. Men in their suits, hats, and overcoats could have come from a Cary Grant movie. The women with their furs and dresses modeled directly from the glamorous Hollywood starlets of the day.

Particularly memorable for me are panels featuring gentlemanly Henry Pym steadfastly helping his girlfriend Janet Van Dyne with her coat, and Tony Stark lounging on a couch while recharging the battery of his Iron Man armor.

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This was like behind the scenes v.i.p access and it was beautifully portrayed. It made you feel like you were the only person seeing it. It created a bond between you and the heroes… and by osmosis, with the artist.

I suppose it’s a matter of personal taste, but since those days I’ve always gravitated towards the style of Heck. I found his quiet images compelling, his storytelling exciting, and of course… there was the women. Boy, was there ever the women. He was renown throughout the comics’ field for his beautiful depictions of the fairer sex. 

He could ably handle all the genres comics had to offer. Many say his work in westerns, war, and horror books were even better than the bulk of his super-hero work. But even so, to a generation of fans he was considered ‘the’ Iron-Man artist, or ‘the’ Avengers artist… or at least honored enough to be in the conversation. 

Along with John Romita, Frank Robbins, and many others, Heck was part of a generation of artists greatly influenced by comic strip master Milton Caniff. In the 50’s and 60’s there was literally a ‘Caniff Movement’ and Heck was probably the best of the bunch at that time. He was so highly respected in fact, that counted among his peer admirers were the likes of legendary comic artists like “Big” John Buscema and the aforementioned Jack “King” Kirby. As a matter of fact, when Kirby wanted to solicit his important ‘New Gods’ concept to DC, he chose Heck as his finisher on the initial presentation drawings.

Later in Heck’s run on ‘Avengers’ he had the opportunity to ink his own pencils. This run is universally considered the high water mark for an artist employing the Caniff style in super-heroes. Even better than Romita’s late 1950’s Captain America series, I can’t recommend these stories any more highly. Daring layouts, dynamic storytelling, impressive use of blacks in inking… these books simply set the standard for the style.

But despite the admiration of fans and respect from fellow professionals, there is the unfortunate tale of the ugly interview done by an ugly man where a famous author names Don Heck as the worst comics artist of all time. I will not name names; you can go to Google if you wish. If you do you will see that the interviewer practically goads the information from the author, and in a twist of fate worthy of the author’s most  famous stories... he names the wrong man! He never meant to use Heck’s name. (Not that he should have named anyone anyway.) To his credit, the famous author apologized profusely whenever he could over the years. I’m glad he did.

Apology aside, this did great damage to Don. He was still capable of terrific work, but found less and less of it. Eventually he was hampered by worsening eyesight and failing health. If he was bitter about the famous interview, we would really never hear of it. Don Heck was a quiet, dignified gentleman, much like the heroes he drew way back in Avengers #15.

In recent years there’s been a Don Heck renaissance! “Don Heck: A Work of Art” by John Coates is a finely researched and wonderful biography released in 2014, and in 2016 Craig Yoe produced the beautifully assembled and lovingly detailed salute to Heck’s classic 1950’s horror work, “Horror by Heck!”.

 This writer also took it upon himself a couple of years ago to start a fast growing Facebook group called “The Don Heck Appreciation Page” which is chock full of wonderful art from all periods of Don’s prolific career. Please join us in ‘raising Heck!’

A few decades ago, ‘Harry’s Barber Shop’ burnt down to the ground. I remember the day I rode my bicycle to the site where it once stood. I got off my bike to walk among and explore the rubble. And that’s really all there was… rubble. I turned to leave when from the corner of my eye I glimpsed a flash of color among the charred grey. Excited, I ran to the spot. It was that coverless copy of Avengers #15 that I loved so much! Much like Heck’s class and art… it was the only thing that lasted.

And does to this day.

 

 

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